marginalia || The Gin Closet, by Leslie Jamison

Ladies and gentlemen, I will allow the long-ass blurb of The Gin Closet, the debut novel of Leslie Jamison to do the honors:

In the late 1960s, Tilly Rudolph abandons her middleclass home in the suburbs and flees to the seedy underworld of Reno. She stays away for decades, working as a prostitute and nursing various addictions, eventually drinking herself to the brink of death in a dusty trailer park. One day, after Tilly spends nearly thirty years without a family, her niece, a young cosmopolite from New York, shows up on her doorstep and changes both their lives forever.

The Gin Closet unravels the strange and powerful intimacy that forms between Tilly and her niece Stella. Its narration shifts between their perspectives as they move to San Francisco to make a home with Abe, Tilly’s overworked and melancholic son, building a fragile triangle that eventually breaks under its own weight.

With an uncanny ear for dialogue and a witty, unflinching candor about sex, love, and power, Leslie Jamison reminds us that no matter how unexpected its turns are, this life we’re given is all we have: the cruelties that unhinge us, the beauties that clarify us, the addictions that deform us, those fleeting possibilities of grace that fade as quickly as they come. The Gin Closet marks the debut of a stunning new talent in fiction.

That sounds helpful enough, doesn’t it? Let’s get per-point with this one, because life is too short for segues:

[1] It begins slowly. It takes its time. Reading the blurb, all giddy, it’s like you submerge yourself in a tubful of water, and, extending the metaphor, the actual exposition is when you surface, all slow-mo. That’s how reading this novel is like. Is that a bad thing? No. Why? Let me explain: Jamison allows the Rudolph family to solidify before our eyes. By not immediately plunging us into the drama of that “fragile triangle,” the actual family dynamics—before meeting Tilly, how the family had changed upon her leaving thirty years ago—are better explored, better established. Did I wish things were speeded up a little? No, not really: One of the things I admired about this novel was that it was, for lack of a less trite phrase, calmly violent. It was leashing in all that angst and pain, making every scene charged, making every character interaction brim with meaning. Which is an odd observation, I know, for a family wrecked by estrangement and indifference, and many other demons—but that’s how it is. It’s painful because all those secrets, the weight of thirty years on the characters’ shoulders. You can’t insist on speed when you owe it not only to the readers, but to the characters themselves. Still, Jamison’s got such tight control, for a subject matter that could go every which way.

[2] Can I tell you how awesome the very concept of a Gin Closet is? It’s that little room in a house where you think you can store away all your demons. In Tilly’s case, it’s filled with bottles of gin. It’s where she rots, it’s where she’s held prisoner, it’s where she believes that things are under control as long as the demons stay locked inside that room with her. But, of course, she’s wrong. It’s genius, I tell you—you don’t need concrete rooms, you don’t need walls. Just your mind telling you, I can handle this, see how I can handle this?

“What do you need?” I asked. “How can I help you?”

“I do it in the dark,” she said. “I can’t stop.”

I stayed quiet. I let her keep going.

“I turn off the lights and take little sips—just little sips one after another. Then I sleep and I wake up and I think maybe, I don’t know, it’s stupid what I think, but maybe if there’s a door I can close… that maybe, I don’t know, it’s a kind of an ending.”

[3] One of the most laudable things about the crafting of this novel was its language. And, if you’ve been following me, you know I can’t talk about a book without talking about its language. And Jamison’s language blew me away. She has a way saying things plainly, but true, and raw, and honest—when the situation demands it. Look at this snippet of dialogue, one that focuses on how the characters never really talk to each other:

“Did you miss me?” I said.

He said, “I’m glad to be with you now.”

[4] Tilly, damaged Tilly, we never really know why she became the way she was, even with the alternating POV, she remains a mystery. The reader is left to conclude that perhaps some people are really just prone. We don’t even really know why Stella is doing what she’s doing—a messianic complex brought on by how crappy and pointless her own life is? Does Stella even know why she’s doing this? Is that lame? Am I making excuses for Tilly, for Stella, for this novel? I like to think that I’m not. I like to think that Tilly and Stella—and Abe, and Stella’s mother—are all too-human in that they’re unknown even to themselves (no, I will not bust out my Philo readings). I have always hated characters who know too well what they are, who know their motivations. There’s self-aware, and then there’s cardboard cut-out. So, yeah. That’s what I think.

[5] Also. You know what this book reminded me of? Change Baby, by June Spence. But this is grittier, if only because it’s set in cities rife with things that could easily be bad for you.

>> The Gin Closet is a meandering story of loss and redemption, and, yes, many failures. This is not a feel-good novel. You will not be inspired. If you want to believe in the fairy-tale goodness of people, I suggest you steer clear of this book. But if you want something human, something that speaks about how we disappoint ourselves, and we disappoint the people we love—how we walk away from things that we value, and can’t quite the things that will only destroy us—pick this novel up. It’ll be nerve-wrecking read, you’ll sigh many times. But it’s damned good storytelling, and I cannot wait for Jamison to litter our bookshelves with her work.

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3 comments

  1. Ooh, evil Sasha you. You’ve made me so want to go out and grab this book right this instance, but it’s not going to be out till mid-February!

    1. Buwahahaha. That was my evil laugh. :] WAIT FOR IT, hahaha. :) I’ve realized that it’s a strange book, in that, well, I’m liking it more and more as the days pass. She’s a storyteller, that Jamison. And her language–marginalia litters my review copy (mostly underlines and heart marks, haha).

  2. […] Reads review New Haven Advocate review Publishers Weekly review San Francisco Chronicle review Sasha & The Silverfish review Slog review Time Out New York review Vogue […]

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